“For myself, I could only wonder at her - was this a sort of evil borrowed from alcohol? I didn’t believe that in herself, in her heart and soul, she was a vicious woman. How is it that for some people drinking is a short-term loan on the spirit, but for others a heavy mortgage on the soul? How is it many a drinker becomes gay and light-hearted, but some so darkly morose and rescinded, filleted of every scrap of happiness, that they might beat their child in the snow?”
The Temporary Gentleman is the thirteenth novel by award-winning Irish author, Sebastian Barry, and his fifth work about the McNulty Family. Now in his mid-fifties, civil engineer and former UN observer, Jack McNulty sits in his rented house in Accra, Ghana, writing about his life in an old minute-book of the now-defunct Gold Coast Engineering and Bridge-Building Company, because “there is a lot to be said for writing things down. The fog gets pushed away, and the truth or some semblance of it stands stark and naked, not always a comfortable matter, no”
Now redundant in Ghana, Jack feels he should go back to Sligo, to what remains of his family, whose story he tells, interspersed with snippets of his life in Accra. While he includes his work in bomb disposal, engineering and as a diplomat, and his extended family, the overwhelming bulk of his account concerns the love of his life, the beautiful and popular Mai Kirwan, whom he met when studying engineering at college: “The waterfall of her black hair, the hat like a boat trying to weather it, her eyes dark in the dark carriage, not so much absent as deep, deep as a well, with the water a far coin below of brightness and blackness”
Readers familiar with Barry’s work will appreciate the mention of many characters recognisable from his other works about this family, although some have different names. A bit of background knowledge of the Troubles in Ireland is also helpful, as much of the novel is set against this background. As Jack finally admits his responsibility for certain heart-breaking events of his past, Barry adds another layer to the engrossing McNulty history.
Barry again succinctly comments about the devastating effect that the change of ruling party can have on those whose loyalties were seen to be with the “other” side: “What strange men were about the earth, after this half century of wars. Men who once were true, and their very trueness turned into betrayal, as the pages of history turn in the wind. Men who were vicious and oftentimes ruthless, turned into heroes and patriots. And a hundred shades and mixtures of both”
Readers are once again treated to the wonderful descriptive prose of which Barry is a master: “We could see the coast of Africa lying out along a minutely fidgeting shoreline. The only illuminations were the merry lights of the ship, and the sombre philosophical lights of God above. Otherwise the land ahead was favoured only by darkness, a confident brushstroke of rich, black ink” and “A lark, a single bird with her dowdy plumage, burst up from her cup of sand just in front of me and like a needle flashing in my mother’s hand of old made a long stitch between earth and heaven, with a joyousness that rent my heart” are just two examples. Both beautiful and sad, this is another brilliant read from Sebastian Barry.
More examples of Barry’s gorgeous prose:
“The bay there, so primitive and wide, as if desolate and unknown to mankind, with not a house in view, showed us its army upon army of white horses, their white-plumed heads rearing and tumbling on the fierce beaten colours of the water, strange blues and blacks, as if blue and black could be fire, and thrown from these wild acres, the heaven-ascending spray”
“The desert was a big as Europe. Humanity, local and imperial, milled about the oases, scorning the heat in mysterious displays of intent. Then these would drop away, and the wide, soul-emptying desert begin again, in which the bus was only a loudmouthed intruder”
“The rains, finally. All day there had been a metallic greyness at the edges of the usual egg-blue sky. A few minutes ago the universe gave a shrug, time seemed to step back, then surged forward to catch up, and then the heavens were ripped in a thousand places like a rotten topsail. And a solid water poured down, you might think no creature could breathe in it. It rubbed out every other sound, of insect, bird and animal. The palm trees dipped under it like dancers, their lovely costumes dragged and battered”
“It was a place where she had been happy so many times, as a girl and a young woman, and it seemed she needed a few minutes to allow an echo of that happiness to touch her”